Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Talking to bad guys: The project

When I was in Tampa last week it was for a meeting on the Anbar Awakening sponsored by CNAS and the College of William & Mary, with the support of Lt. Gen. John Allen of Centcom. It was a great meeting, but most of it was off the record, or at least "not for attribution." ...

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When I was in Tampa last week it was for a meeting on the Anbar Awakening sponsored by CNAS and the College of William & Mary, with the support of Lt. Gen. John Allen of Centcom. It was a great meeting, but most of it was off the record, or at least "not for attribution." (There's a difference.) The meeting was part of a larger research project being conducted by Dr. Mitchell Reiss on why and how states negotiate with terrorist and insurgent groups. It's an interesting project, so I asked him for a summary.

By Ambassador Mitchell B. Reiss

Best Defense chief diplomatic correspondent 

When I was in Tampa last week it was for a meeting on the Anbar Awakening sponsored by CNAS and the College of William & Mary, with the support of Lt. Gen. John Allen of Centcom. It was a great meeting, but most of it was off the record, or at least "not for attribution." (There’s a difference.) The meeting was part of a larger research project being conducted by Dr. Mitchell Reiss on why and how states negotiate with terrorist and insurgent groups. It’s an interesting project, so I asked him for a summary.

By Ambassador Mitchell B. Reiss

Best Defense chief diplomatic correspondent 

Governments typically come into office swearing they will never talk to their enemies, yet within a matter of months or years often find themselves sitting across a table from the very people they had previously vilified. For example, Vice President Cheney remarked that "We don’t negotiate with evil. We defeat it." Yet the Bush Administration talked with both Iran and North Korea, even after the President had labeled them as part of an "axis of evil." 

Talking with terrorist or insurgent groups poses even greater challenges, especially for democratic societies. Governments need to explore whether these groups have limited grievances that might be addressed through a political process or whether they harbor maximalist, millennial, nihilist or apocalyptic goals that cannot be. The risk of miscalculation is high — governments, and lives, depend on these determinations. 

For the past fifteen months, I have been traveling around the world meeting with government ministers, military, security and intelligence officers, counter-terrorism experts and former terrorists to discuss these issues. By examining the cases of the IRA, ETA, the Anbar Awakening, the Tamil Tigers, Hamas and the Moro Liberation Fronts, this study, which will be published this fall under the title Negotiating with Evil, uncovers important new information about different counter-terrorism approaches. 

Understanding when it make sense to talk to terrorists and when is it folly, or worse, has significant implications for shaping U.S. policy in America’s "Long War" against violent extremists. The reality is that Washington will not be able to kill or capture all the bad guys; it may have to sit down and talk to some, as General McChrystal has just recently argued we should do with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Negotiating with Evil explains how other countries have managed this challenge, when they have succeeded and when they have failed. The lessons could not be more timely. 

More about the Tampa meeting soon.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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